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Brains create consciousness?

  1. Mar 19, 2011 #1
    Does the brain create consciousness (C)? Does C originate in brains? Is C limited to brains?

    Many people think they already know the answer to these questions. They might have a religious conviction about souls and believe the answer is "no". Or they might have a misunderstanding of neuroscience and medicine, and think the answer is "yes" (after all, strokes and anesthesia prove that brains are required for C, dont they?).

    However, as many here in the philosophy section are aware, the issue isnt so simple. There are many different metaphysical options, materialism, physicalism, idealism, panpsychism, panexperientalism, neutral monism, etc.

    Here is an example of someone (Galen Strawson) making his case for panpsychism:

    * the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS) is in the physicsforums list of accepted journals

    In this topic i would like to see discussed whether C is created by the brain or not. What is the evidence and what are the philosophical problems for either case?
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  3. Mar 19, 2011 #2


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    The brain can efficiently store and analyze information, but is it responsible for C? It most definitely has a lot to do with C and tends to interact with C a great deal.

    But what about single celled organisms? Do single celled organisms have a subjective experience?

    So how do all the non-neuronal cells in our body, including symbiotic bacterias, contribute to C, and (as apeiron will likely extrapolate on) what about environmental effects on C? If you deprive a newborn of all senses, I would think it highly unlikely they develop C (evidence suggesting this is so can be found in deprivation studies during critical developmental periods).

    Then there's also the question of how proteomics and genomics influence C.

    To test all these wonderful candidates, we still need a C test; So far, we judge C by behavior which isn't very rigorous.
  4. Mar 19, 2011 #3
    Yes those tests arent rigorous, they essentially just end up with the assumption you start out with. Assume that such and such behaviour indicates consciousness, and then you will only find consciousness when you find such and such behaviour. They may be suited for practical purposes (anesthesia, euthanasia, etc), but won't offer help in finding the origin of C.

    The paper of Strawson (im still reading it), makes this argument against the emergence of C (from brains or from whatever else). First he challenges the assumption that the fundamental physical ingredients (he calls it "ultimates") are non-experiencing. He says physics offers us no basis to suppose this, rather it leaves the question open. Then he says that instead of assuming that such ultimates are completely non-experiencing, we actually have data showing that physical things do come with experiences (the data being our own brain and experiences). If we still do assume that ultimates are completely non-experiental, then given the fact that some things are experiental, we are left with a gap between non-experiencing ultimates and experiencing brains. Brute emergence is needed to bridge the gap, but this is just like "magic". X cannot intelligibly emerge from something completely non-X. There cannot be an explanation for such an event.

    Btw about those newborns, are they born unconscious?
  5. Mar 19, 2011 #4
    I will say that I have not finished the paper, but certain notions to me seem sketchy. First the notion that all is intrinsically experiential is a necessary component of reality for the experiential cannot emerge from the non-experiential seems to me a semantic argument moreoso than a metaphysical argument.

    How so? You might ask. For me, "Experience" just is a broad vague notion and certainly while "experience" is concretely attended to as a precondition for appearance in our reality, it is also precisely our "experience". What does it mean to "Experience" and if we are postulating that atoms "Experience" in what sense does that change anything? We certainly cannot say that they "experience" like we do, nor can we say that they "experience" like animals. So it seems that we simply use the word "Experience" as a designator for all that exists, such that it loses its meaning. We have just attached a new word that doesn't offend our logical sensibility to "fundamental reality", but as far as explanation goes we seem to have done nothing.
    The problem of "emergence" which the author seems to dislike still fundamentally exists for his position as well. Being that the "experience" of the fundamental is in no way like ours and the only other way we infer about "experience" is through behavioral observations, and the "behavior" of a quantum entity certainly doesn't give much for inferring "Experiental qualities" we are left with answering how our complex form of experience can emerge from the fundamental experience of the atom. Pragmatically, nothing has changed. We have just applied a word (which it must be kept in mind is simply a human-devised category) to new phenomena and subsequently what differentiated that word from others has been abolished. We are still left with the problem of emergence of our experience from other "experience".
    We still cannot describe the experience of others, we still cannot account for the "emergence" of our experience, we have simply trojan horsed in the concept experience to seemingly make for a more logical solution

    Sorry for the quick, cluttered reply.
  6. Mar 19, 2011 #5
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/panpsych/#H4", the magical emergence of the mind. Once you give everything some degree of consciousness, you must only find the formula, which defines the degree (are you more conscious than the rock?). Panpsychism is counterintuitive, because we associate consciousness with the living things, part of the environment and not the environment itself. But does this mean that the rocks can't experience qualia? And if they can, won't it be million times "weaker" than ours? Like the qualia of the people in vegetative state? And if you find the formula and define consciousness, you will surely be able to make yourself ultra-conscious, million times more conscious than now, so is there some cap of the degree?

    So you see panpsychism counters some problems, but creates a lot by itself.
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  7. Mar 19, 2011 #6
    I think the idea is to bridge the gap between "utterly non-experiencing things" and "experiencing things". While experiences can be very different from eachother (as we know from personal experience), and this means it is a very broad category, it does bridge the gap which is otherwise unbridgeable. We just dont know what it is like to experience such things, but neither do we know what its like to be a bat, or even one's neighbour.

    While "experience" is a human term/category, what it refers to is not. For example you can feel pain in many different varieties, you can see color in many different varieties. You can have many different experiences. That's the actual phenomenon the term refers to. These establish the principle that such things do occur in nature. By positing that experiences (of whatever kind) are also fundamentals, no brute emergence is required to explain the human types of experiences. There is still much left to explain, but it is no longer burdened with an inexplicable gap. Instead it becomes comparable with other natural phenomena.

    Heres what he writes:
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2011
  8. Mar 19, 2011 #7
    Those are questions left open yes, but i dont think they are really logical problems with panpsychism itself. The same questions can be asked about any philosophical position, even if we accept that only brains are conscious. Does my hypothetical neighbour, who had a stroke, have weaker experiences? Can certain drugs, or a certain kind of surgery, make one ultra conscious? Etc.
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  9. Mar 19, 2011 #8
    Yes, I feel as though we may just end up just disagreeing on this one. While I understand that the paper is an attempt to bridge the gap, I don't see that it actually does so, except by switching words around.
    I just say that the appelation is somewhat meaningless, so I can agree with it or disagree with it. What does it mean to "experience" something and what constitutes an experience are questions left un-attended to. An "experience" is just assumed as a primitive in order to bridge the divide between "experience" and "non experience".

    And what does it refer to in the non-human or even non-animal case? What does it mean for an atom to "Experience" something? I feel as though we're grossly overextending our language in the same ilk that we say that matter is not a "particle or a wave because the words we use fail to be effective at those scales". This is similar to how I feel about attributing experiential qualities to matter at the small scale. It doesn't actually solve problems, it resolves a linguistic quibble.

    I understand this, and I can see where you are coming from. I just feel that there isn't much of a difference in saying that " Some living phenomena emerged from non-living phenomena" and "Some experiential phenomena arose from some-thing-that-is-like-experience phenomena".
    Moreover I fail to see why emergence of life from non-life is seen as such a problem. "What is one thing cannot emerge out of what is completely different". I see a proclemation, but I don't see it as being intuitively obvious as to why this must be the case.

    I suppose I am looking at it from the perspective of the pragmatist philosophy: "What difference would it make in the world if this were true?". It doesn't seem like it would make much of a difference, all of our problems of understanding the emergence of life from non life would remain the same. We would still have to account for why matter became organized into life, and exhibited complexity. Once we are able to do that, I see the addition of experience as simply an un-necessary supplementary assumption inserted ad-hoc so as to not offend some ontological/linguistic sensibility. I don't see that it would aid us in understanding the world any further.

    The main problem for me, if you wish to help me see your point of view, is the question posed earlier: "What does it mean for something to experience something" and "What would it mean for a rock (or atom or what have you) to experience?" ...I don't see that it means anything, and if it does it doesn't involve our current conception of experience, and as such the quibble of the antimony "experience-non experience" quickly dissolves because the original meaning of the words is not even the same.
    Realize that, the un-intelligiblity of the position of emergence of experience from non experience is not "necessarily" un intelligible. In fact it may be that entire schools of Eastern philosophy (And western) would say that opposites are necessary in order to bring each other into existence, or in order to aquire knowledge about anything.
  10. Mar 19, 2011 #9
    Some examples of experiences are: the visuals you see when you read this text on your computer screen, the pain you feel when you pinch yourself, the smell of onions, the sound of a voice, etc. Does this answer your question of what its like to experience something?

    Now to contrast this with not experiencing anything... i cant really give you an example of that because you cant have experienced it. But some people (materialists/physic(s)alists) hold that the fundamental physical ingredients completely lack any experience. So there is therefor then a gap between the two and it is not a linguistic one.

    Maybe i am misunderstand what you write here, but it seems like you think experiences dont really exist?

    The issue of origin of life is also mentioned in the paper:

    When he says "it reduces", he means that life doesnt have any new properties beyond those of its fundamental physical ingredients. It is therefore not comparable with the emergence of C.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2011
  11. Mar 19, 2011 #10
    I am most certainly not arguing that there is no experience. I was simply wishing for you to delve deeper into what it means "to experience" and contrast what it would mean for us to experience something as opposed to what it would even mean for a rock to experience something. I did not mean to imply that the concept of our experience or all experience is an ad hoc un-necessary assumption, I was however implying that extending the all-too-vague concept of "Experience" to anything and everything in terms of solving the problem of how we came to be, doesn't help much.

    I just feel that the concept "to experience" is too vague, we barely know what it means outside of our own first-hand subjective experience. We barely know what goes into experience in any animals, plants are even furter down the line, and I just see a diluted concept of experience the further we get from the immediacy of our concrete experience.
  12. Mar 20, 2011 #11
    Correct, this is to do with the nature of consciousness, it is unknowable except from first person perspective. But its not so much related to the issue of whether it exists beyond brains.
  13. Mar 20, 2011 #12


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    Hi pftest,
    Would you say that consciousness is supervenient on the physical? By that I mean as Tim Maudlin (Computation and Consciousness) suggests:
    If it’s supervenient on the physical, one might then ask if the causal closure of the physical is true or not. I think that’s what Galen Strawson would like to argue against, while others would argue for it. Would you agree?

    There’s also the question of whether or not mental phenomena can even be explained in physical terms. In other words, can mental phenomena such as qualia be described by describing the physical supervenient base? Clearly for example, such things as Benard cells can be explained, in full and with no remainder, by explaining the physical supervenient base. And we can suggest there is a correlation between the physical supervenience base and the mental events as suggested by Maudlin. But are the mental phenomena described by describing the physical supervenience base? I think that’s where it gets very sticky, with many people wanting to claim yes, the others claiming no.

    I think you could make up a ‘matrix’* of sorts that showed how the different answers to these questions (and many more) result in certain conclusions and paradoxes. For every conclusion we reach by making a choice on one of these above questions (and many others) we seem to end up with paradoxes. I think the main reason we have so many different descriptions and ideas about consciousness is because of all these different ways people try to support answers to the fundamental questions. But I don’t see a single theory of consciousness yet that is fully consistent and doesn’t lead to some kind of paradox.

    * Actually, there is a matrix of sorts on the internet that's similar to what I'm suggesting here: http://www.macrovu.com/CCTGeneralInfo.html [Broken]
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  14. Mar 20, 2011 #13
    The problem i have with supervenience is that it doesnt seem to be a physical activity. Maybe i misunderstand what supervenience is, but this is what i think it boils down to:

    We have a bunch of trees.
    We call those trees a forest.
    Forest then supervenes on its trees.

    So it appears to me that this whole supervenience business is about giving a group of objects a different label ("forest"). One might say the forest is a higher level description and the trees are a lower level description. This whole proces of giving something a new label is a mental activity taking place in someones mind, as opposed to a physical process taking place between the trees. If no conscious observer were involved to call the trees a forest, the supervenience relationship would vanish. Physically, the lowest level description (which is the language of physics and fundamentals) would be accurate enough to make all higher level descriptions redundant. If it is true that supervenience is a mental activity, then it follows that it cannot be used as an explanation in the origin of C and that very first C cannot merely be supervenient on the physical.

    Again i think i might misunderstand what supervenience is, since i have seen many physicalists talk about it being compatible with the idea that C originates in brains.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2011
  15. Mar 20, 2011 #14
    Supervenience condition: Two systems engaged in the same physical activity will produce identical mentality (if they produce any at all).

    The forest example by you is very good explanation why http://kwelos.tripod.com/emergent.htm" [Broken].

    When people say mind emerges from the brain they usually mean http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strong_emergence" [Broken].

    Basically the three possible variants are:
    1) Strong emergence exists (non-reductive functionalism, epiphenomenalism)
    2) Panpsychism exists (reductive functionalism, interactionism, idealism)
    3) There is neither emergence nor panpsychism (reductive physicalism, eliminativism, parallelism, neutral monism, idealism)
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  16. Mar 20, 2011 #15


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    I wouldn't say the forest example is a good one, but perhaps it would help if we extended that example. Saying something supervenes on something else is to say that there is some sort of dependence of one thing (generally a higher order property or description) on the things that make it up. A good example might be that the pressure of the air in a balloon supervenes on the action or motion of the molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and other gases in the balloon. In the case of the forest, you might say the forest depends on there being trees of a certain density per square mile or a certain species or genus of tree, so the forest supervenes on the trees, but generally we like to express there being some kind of definable property such as pressure. However, if we were to define a forest as being supervenient on trees somehow, then any two forests would be identical if they had identical trees with identical limbs, roots, leaves, etc... The two forests couldn't be differentiated without there being some difference in one of the forests, such as an extra leaf on one of the trees that was in one forest but not the other. We could still say the property of being a forest is supervenient on there being a certain density or type of tree or some other tree like description, but I think that gets a bit hazy. Perhaps this would help:
    Ref: http://www.iep.utm.edu/superven/

    So to get back to the question in the OP, "Does the brain create consciousness (C)? Does C originate in brains?" we generally say that C is supervenient on the brain. One could also argue whether it is really the brain as a whole that C is supervenient on. There are other theories that suggest that C is supervenient on the neurons themselves, not their interactions or the brain as a whole, but those theories still suggest that C is supervenient on something physical. There are still other theories that suggest C is supervenient on the EM field created by the neuron interactions. But again, those theories suggest there is some physical basis on which C supervenes.
  17. Mar 21, 2011 #16


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    It was Descartes who introduced a basic ontological distinction between the mental and the material. Strawson’s argument takes this difference as absolute, but that seems to me not at all necessary.

    I think the really fundamental difference here is between the world from a point of view, and the world regarded from no point of view in particular, i.e. “objectively”.

    In physics, one can certainly describe the world from the point of view of an atom. We can do that without assuming there’s anything “unphysical” going on.

    What Descartes did was to take this basic difference between subjective and objective points of view, and treat it as a basic difference within objective reality. Then it became possible to confuse “having a point of view” with human self-awareness... and get into all kinds of muddle about “consciousness”.

    This way of putting it makes it sound like Descartes made a mistake. Yes, but of course long before his time people had objectified “the mind” and talked about it as a kind of quasi-physical organ. What they had not done, before Descartes, was to recognize one’s own “subjective” point of view as having ontological significance. When Descartes took his own point of view seriously enough even to question whether anything else in the world was real, he made a hugely important step. It made the subjective standpoint available to thinking for the first time. But he could only do that within the available conceptual language of his time, which was entirely objective. So he made “mind” one of the two basic kinds of objective reality, and “matter” the other.

    We continue this confusion when we talk about “consciousness” as an objective property of certain kinds of entities. No doubt what goes on in human brains (objectively) is somewhat different from what goes on in animal brains... though not very different. What goes on between humans, and between them and their environment, is very different from what goes on between animals. But this is all treating the matter objectively. That’s fine, and there are no absolute differences in this picture, between humans and animals, animals and plants, etc.

    There is an absolute difference when we switch to our own unique, subjective point of view on the world. Then we’re on the side of what Strawson calls “experience”. But there’s no reason to think this is anything different from the activity of our brains... it’s just that same activity “seen from inside,” so to speak. The difference between mind and brain is purely a difference in viewpoint.

    I think a useful definition of the kind of “consciousness” humans have is – a point of view that talks to itself. By learning to talk about the world, we learn to pay attention to it in ways that other animals aren’t able to do. We articulate to ourselves a remarkable internal mental world that parallels the objective world in which we live. But to mistake this for some kind of objective “psychic” property that we should attribute to atoms in addition to their “materiality” is just the persistence of a category error left over from the 18th-century.
  18. Mar 21, 2011 #17
    Hi ConradDJ,
    Panpsychism not always implies there are some extra "psychic properties" in the core of the particles. For example you can view the work that the particles itself do as inevitably leading to consciousness. You have different possible states, and depending of which is present or how many are present, you can have different degree of consciousness. Check for example the theory of http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q...sig=AHIEtbQdH8cxC4DMVKsX93s4_j6aivYf8Q&pli=1".
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  19. Mar 21, 2011 #18
    Thats exactly what im trying to say, thanks for the link.

    Thats a good simple overview. So far im rejecting (1) because strong emergence doesnt seem to occur anywhere in nature. And from (3) i reject reductive physicalism + eliminativism (+ maybe neutral monism). Reductive physicalism because "reducing" something is also a psychological activity (the reduced property is always psychological). Eliminativism because eliminating experiences undermines all that is known by empiricism (including all physics) and so this seems self-defeating.

    Neutral monism (if it means that the mental and physical are both actually something else that is neither mental nor physical), seems to require two instances of emergence.

    Im curious what the big problems with panpsychism are. I have seen people argue that it is ridiculous, but that just seems like a rejection based on emotion.
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  20. Mar 21, 2011 #19
    So is gas just a label given to a bunch of molecules in motion? If we describe fully the behaviour of the molecules in the balloon, then:

    1) there is no physical property of "pressure" left to describe
    2) there is still some physical property of "pressure" left to describe (this would mean pressure is irreducible)

    If (1) then supervenience is psychological (this is what i think) and this means there is nothing physicalist about the idea that C supervenes on the brain. I think it would fall in the same category as the idea that C is an illusion of the brain.

    Ive seen McFadden's CEMI field around here before and it made me wonder... why the just the neuron EM field and not the rest.
  21. Mar 21, 2011 #20


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    I don't see seeking the "atoms of synergy" as panpsychic. Rather it is asking what is the simplest level of systemshood.

    Panpsychism is based on a material or substance ontology. Substance is material existence which possess (locally, inherently) a set of properties.

    But the systems view is a process ontology - one in which substance and form are in interaction. And Koch/Tononi would be seeking the minimum notion of a process. They talk about the process being differentiation~integration, and the fact it is synergistic.

    Differentiation~integration is a standard systems dichotomy. It is making the local~global, construction~constraint, distinction in talking about "the production of local variety" vs "the production of global cohesion".

    The systems view does have a version of panpsychism I guess in pansemiosis. This makes the claim that everything that exists - no matter how small or minimally formed - is a bootstrapping process. So even atoms of matter would really be a minute scrap of synergistic process.

    I'm not sure why Koch calls Tononi's approach panpsychic. He often makes philosophical statements that seem at odds with his neuroscientific insights. But I think there is an obvious distinction to be made between the idea of "properties of atoms" and "atoms of process". One reduces properties to local substance. The other treats the interaction between substance and form as an irreducible property!
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